Contractors’ Questions: Is four references excessive?

Contractor’s Question: A tech recruitment agency I’ve not used before got me an interview for next week. They are asking for my last FOUR workplaces -- that seems excessive; usually it’s just the last two workplaces.

Also, they want details for who got me each role in the past – I’ve not come across that before either. Are both an example of the recruiter on a fishing expedition, and can I refuse or is that likely to squash my chances and lose me the interview?

Expert’s Answer: The first thing to say to you and any other ContractorUK readers asked for FOUR references is ‘Yes – this is excessive!’

It’s natural to want to say ‘Yes’ yourself, and be as helpful as possible to the recruiter who ultimately has control of the opportunity you’re interested in.

But taking a step back to think about why they’re asking certain questions and whether their questions are valid, is important too.

Why the recruiter might be requesting these 4 references…

1. Agents taking responsibility for their introductions

There are over 30,000 recruitment agencies in the UK which makes the sector very competitive. Recruiters are always looking to stand out and add value wherever they can. One way to do this is to support the client with vetting and background checks. We are seeing more and more agents taking it on themselves to ask for references. We do it ourselves! I only expect more agencies to take accountability for their introductions moving forward.

2. Fake referees

When asking for a reference, the agent will want to know the manager who appointed you, or who you reported into or who signed your timesheets.

If a recruiter asks you for any referee without validating their seniority, there is a risk that the person could be a friend and possibly give a reference that is not entirely accurate. I’ve experienced this many times firsthand when colleagues back each other.

Recently, we had a candidate who had stated they worked for a multinational bank on their CV. When asked for a reference they offered the email of someone who appeared to be a colleague, or certainly an equal on their LinkedIn profile.

When we contacted that person for a reference, they waxed lyrical about how great the contractor was, almost too great. We did a bit of background checking (speaking with other contacts we knew at this bank) and it turned out our contractor had NEVER worked there. He’d got a friend who did actually work at the bank to pretend he had, and offer a reference!

This is why agents might want to qualify your references. This doesn’t happen often, but sadly it still does sometimes.

3. Regulatory requirements

We work with various companies in the financial, insurance and healthcare sectors that require levels of security clearance and formal background checks.

Here’s an example we know of. A leading insurance company requires each contractor and permanent employee to provide FIVE years of references and explain any gaps on their CV of more than six weeks.

As you can imagine, this is a logistical nightmare to provide. Managers move on, clients merge, companies liquidate. How do you explain what you were doing for eight weeks back in 2019?

In these cases (and similar cases like yours where the requirements are beyond the norm), I would expect the recruiter to make clear and be upfront with you from the very first call, such as specifying the level of clearance required and the intense process involved.

As seasoned contractors know, these checks can take weeks and will identify any skeletons in your closet.

Therefore, it’s always worth asking what the interview and background check process is from the beginning, so nothing arises that you’re uncomfortable with.

4. ‘Lead Generation’

Here's where dodgy and unethical recruiters can come into play.

‘Lead generation’ is a term used in the recruitment industry by recruiters to describe how they find their new clients. This isn’t a bad term; after all, the contract jobs you’re offered by recruiters need to be found and relationships nurtured. However, there are ethical and less ethical ways to generate leads.

I had a recruitment director I reported to back in the early 2000s make known to me that his modus operandi for lead generation was to ask contractors for multiple references and ask where they were interviewing, even using a ‘fake’ job to entice contractors. I hated that practice -- I found it to be false, cheap and deceiving.

So if a recruiter asks for referees, they might just be doing their job properly, but there is a chance it might be lead generation. In these cases, if your last 4 employers keep getting hounded by recruiters and your name comes up in conversation, it could reflect badly on you and your reputation, so be careful!

The solution

Taking into consideration that managers move on and clients cease trading, it's becoming increasingly difficult for contractors to secure referees when they need them most.

My tip has always been to build a ‘Brag Folder’.

Each time you’re about to roll off one assignment, drop your manager an email and ask them to provide a reference (ideally on company letter headed paper or at least an email bearing their auto-signature), setting out the dates you started and finished; what you did and what value you added.

Then, you simply save these in a folder and each time you’re asked, you can refer to them. It carries a lot of weight to say to a recruiter:

“I have 10 years of references on client-company paper to support all my assignments. I’m happy to share a couple of the relevant references with you once I have been formally offered the opportunity.”

But remember to always be careful who you share this info with and when. Only work with reputable recruitment agencies with solid backgrounds.

When to share

As a recruiter, I would ask for references at offer stage i.e. I would say to you (the contractor):

“I have an offer for you -- here are the terms for it (the offer remains conditional to satisfactory references), so now I need to do the background checks on you.”

My recommendation would be to decline to give references at CV submission / interviewing stage.

So, if almost anybody asks for these details at either stage you should decline, with a reason along the lines of:

 “If I share my referees with every recruiter I apply for a role with, my referees will cease to be willing to be referees.”

By this I mean that your referees don’t want to be contacted every time you simply apply for a role – they will be happy to provide you with a reference when an opportunity has actually been offered.

So, to sum up, be careful and question a recruiter’s intentions where necessary, build a brag folder of references and don’t offer these references out until you have a formal offer. Good luck!

The expert was Matt Collingwood, managing director of IT recruitment company VIQU.

Tuesday 20th Feb 2024
Profile picture for user Matt Collingwood

Written by Matt Collingwood

Matt Collingwood is the Managing Director of VIQU Ltd. an IT recruitment and project-based consultancy company with offices in Birmingham and Southampton. Matt is also the co-founder of the Recruitment Canaries, a network of West Midlands based recruitment agencies who encourage collaboration, best practice and upholding the standards and ethics of the recruitment industry.

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